Light, Medium, Dark – Which Coffee Roast Profile Do You Love?
A roast profile is the description of what’s been done to the coffee bean to take it from green to brown. Green coffee beans are the pits inside of a cherry-like fruit. They are small, hard, dense and light colored. When we get them, they look like this:
Each bean variety has flavor and physical characteristics based on factors like, the particular crop, where it is grown, how it is harvested, and how it is processed post harvest. We’ll discuss more about the growing, harvesting, and processing of green coffee beans in future posts.
A green coffee bean is coffee in its raw state. To transform beans from green, to brown, to black, a roaster will expose them to heat for a certain length of time. How much heat and how much time depends on factors such as, which method the roaster is using, what variety the beans are, and the flavor the roaster desires to create.
Most roasters experiment with time, temperature, and bean variety to balance emphasis on the natural flavors in each variety with how the coffee tastes when brewed. Most roasters also experiment to create signature blends that hopefully become popular with their customers (our Dam Good Blend is an example of a signature blend). Some roasters custom roast single origin varieties to what customers request (we do that too!).
Roasting = Transformation
When green coffee beans are roasted, they expand in size, become more porous, and get darker. During roasting, the beans crack as they expand – sometimes once, sometimes more than once, depending on the roast profile.
How many different roast profiles are there?
It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole on this one. To keep it simple, we’re going to go with the four categories set out by the National Coffee Association.
Also called: Light City, Half City, Cinnamon
Looks like: Light brown in color, no oils on the surface of the bean.
Because they are roasted for less time with less heat, there is not as much breakdown of the original bean components as you get with darker roasts. This means that light roasts are the most true to the original flavors of the bean. When you’re thinking of a light roast you can think of tastes like nuts, grains or seeds – if a tiny bit more roasted (but still light) you can start to taste florals or fruits.
Also called: City, American, Breakfast
Looks like: Medium brown in color, no oils on the surface of the bean.
Roasted for longer than light roasts, medium roasts can start to taste like caramel, honey or even roasted fruits. The flavor profile is sweeter and the beans have more “flavor” that is brought out by roasting them a bit longer.
Medium Dark Roast
Also called: Full City
Looks like: Rich dark brown in color, some oils on the surface of the beans.
You’ll start to taste flavors of vanilla and bourbon. Some people describe the taste as “richer” than medium or light roast. Deep flavors characterize this roast profile.
Also called: High, Continental, New Orleans, European, Espresso, Viennese, Italian, French
Looks like: Black in color with an oily surface to the beans.
Flavor is more robust and often smoky. Drinking dark roast hot often feels heavy and can be bitter, unless you put some type of milk in it. We use a dark roast for our Black Canyon Cold Brew because the cold brewing process brings out darker richer flavors like nuts and chocolate – and when brewed cold there is absolutely no trace of bitterness. All you taste is smooth, rich, delicious coffee.
Reflections of a Coffee Snob
I’m much more of a snob about freshness than I am about roast profiles. I enjoy trying different roast profiles hot and black (the way I drink 99% of my coffee). My personal taste runs toward medium to medium dark roasts – to me they have a richer taste – even though the roasting process has “interfered” more with the natural flavors by virtue of a longer roast time.
Even if I don’t care for a particular profile, I can recognize it as fresh – and as overall a great cup of coffee due to its freshness. I’m also biased toward air roasting, because that is the method we use. We use Sonofresco air roasters and a Sivetz Roaster.
There is a distinct difference in taste between air roasting and drum roasting. Air roasting tastes cleaner and smoother. People who drink it regularly seem to know it immediately. I may one day be open for debate on this subject because there are passionate and supported arguments on both sides. For now I will just say there is NOTHING better than a fresh air roasted cup of coffee. You should order some!